The Independent and Self-Determined Struggle for Land Tenure of Ancestral Lands by the Bawihka-Mayangna

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The Independent and Self-Determined Struggle for Land Tenure of Ancestral Lands by the Bawihka-Mayangna
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  1 The Independent and Self-Determined Struggle for Land Tenure of Ancestral Lands by the Bawihka-Mayangna ABSTRACT: For over 30 years the Bawihka group of approximately 4,500 Mayangna has fought for legal rights and recognition of land tenure to their ancestral lands. December 21 st , 2009, after two years of intensive lobbying and scientific documentation, the Bawihka were granted rights to 48,743.136 hectares. Though not containing the entire historical claim, title recognition signifies a great advancement for the Bawihka, and the success of an incredible struggle not supported by national or international assistance. Only in the ultimate phase of reporting, did the Luxemburg, Danish, and German governments contribute. In accordance with procedures of the 2003 Nicaraguan Laws 445 and 28, the Bawihka of northeastern Nicaragua, located between mining colony towns of Bonanza, Rosita, and Siuna, completed their own household economic studies, geographical information system mapping (G.I.S.) and on-site mapping of illegal colonization and timber harvesting. Educating their own tribal members, the Bawihka fought for land title without outside assistance, and in adverse conditions of racism and violations of their human rights as indigenous peoples, guaranteed to them under the U.N. Declaration of Indigenous Human Rights (2007). With only a handful of native Bawihka-Mayangna speakers (different from Panamahka-Mayangna, most commonly spoken among Mayangna), tribal members pursued land rights as a measure for cultural survival and the  protection of their treasured broadleaf rainforest environment, ensuring sustainability of their culture and home. This paper details steps taken by the Bawihka to protect their home and precious environment, including the authors’ involvements as legal assistants, anthropologist, and President of the Bawihka tribal group. Key words:  Indigenous Land Rights, Mayangna, Conservation AUTHORS: Dr. Nan Marie Greer, Linda Maria Kosen, and Noe Coleman  2 It was 3:00 a.m. on a Sunday, dark and quiet in the Nicaraguan rainforest, in the Bawihka-Mayangna community of Mukuswas, at the home of the President, or chief of the territory, known as Matungbak. We were located in a territory surrounded by illegal gold mines, hardwood loggers, and cattle ranchers. Two shots rang out in darkness, and we were witness to the sounds of gunfire close by. Our security guard loaded his 38 and left the home, while we waited in silence. Within minutes we heard the gun unload 3 times. The house sat silent, and many of us stared into our mosquito nets waiting for morning to come. By mid-morning, most in the community were dressed in their Sunday  best and on their way to the all-community Moravian church service, with the exception of young women, children, and two of the authors. One of us, bathing by the community well, heard an unfamiliar voice speaking Spanish and turned to see what she recognized as a colonist walking past her. He had tied his horse to the well and skirted around her, gun in hand. As he walked across her path she noticed more men close behind, and within moments he had shot a deer, not more than 150 yards from a home with children playing at its base. Shortly thereafter, all ran inside their homes and hid for cover, fearing this  band of armed illegal colonists. Whether they were invited, or entered the community without permission is in question; what became apparent, however, was the connection to the gunfire heard that morning in darkness. These incidents in the Mayangna territory left those who witnessed and heard the shots in fear, and they took them to be acts of intimidation and a violation of their human rights. Upon return from church, there were long angry discussions amongst male leaders of the home and community, and concerned adults arrived throughout the afternoon. In reaction, the elected leaders of Matungbak enacted new  3 laws of hunting for their territory, including one that banned colonist hunting in communities. This experience highlights the type of conflicts that are part of the daily struggle for indigenous rights in Nicaragua. The Mayangna, a small tribal group of only 40,000, is gravely endangered, as is their home, also known as the ¨lungs of the world” (  Economist Sept 25 th -Oct 1 st , 2010). This area is at the heart of where the Sandinista-Contra War began, and it was indigenous dissatisfaction with government assimilation  policies that spurred the beginning of the Mayangna´s struggle for land and autonomy.  The Mayangna have resided in and around this region for millennia, and the area has  provided their traditional hunting, gathering, fishing, and sacred sites. Geographically it is located in the northeastern mountainous region of Nicaragua and is the southernmost  portion of a tract of tropical broadleaf forest stretching to the northern coast of Honduras. It is the largest extension of tropical forest north of the Amazon Basin and the subject of several conservation efforts besides BOSAWAS (Stocks, 1996). The BOSAWAS’s mountainous upland rainforest ranges from 200 to 750 meters in elevation and contains  both coniferous and deciduous forest communities, and the core area of the Reserve is known to contain a wide diversity of species including jaguar, tapir, harpy eagles, and other endangered wildlife (TNC/Managua, Nicaragua, Jan. 1996). Tribal leaders and elders claim the region has retained its vast tracts of tropical forest with great biodiversity because of their cultural traditions, spirituality, and natural resource conservation practices. It is understandable that these indigenous groups would want to be the  primary stewards and owners of these rich and diverse lands, especially in light of the constant pressures of illegal logging and continual arrival of more colonists. However, the government has remained in nominal control of these lands since Somoza’s dictatorship, as  4 they were registered as state lands when he claimed much of the country of Nicaragua as his  personal property. During Spanish colonization there was a lack of interest in the Atlantic coast due to a  perceived lack of gold in the coastal inlet areas, and the geographically inaccessible nature of the highlands. It wasn’t until the late 1500´s that the first pirate camps were established by British buccaneers exploiting the riches of the Atlantic coast, now claimed by Nicaragua. There were two prominent ethnic groups in the north Atlantic region during these initial colonial establishments, the Mayangna, and the Miskitu. These two groups reacted in different ways when confronted by European explorers and colonizers. The Miskitu eagerly interacted and intermarried with the British settlers, which allowed them to enter into an alliance that enabled them to gain leadership and power in the region. The term “Miskitu King” was commonly used to describe Misktu in positions of power established by the British. The Mayangna, however, suffered from both introduced diseases (destroying 90% of the population) and attacks from the Spaniards to the West and Miskitu and English military alliances to the East. Mayangna who were not killed were often captured as slaves by the Miskitu and British forces and sent to Jamaica; women were often raped, and the remainder of the population fled to the mountains and upper-rivers of their traditional lands. Despite this, Miskitu claim indigenous rights, including land rights. However, Mayangna resentment towards Miskitu still exists today and is fueled by their constant political marginalization due to Miskitu-dominated interests in government.  In 1894 the Nicaraguan national government began the process of la reincorporación which would attempt to unite the Pacific and Atlantic regions under one government in a campaign known as “nation building,” or to others, assimilation. Motivated by the anticipation of riches that would flow to the Pacific from the Atlantic, Nicaraguan soldiers  5 were sent to pacify the Atlantic region, and to initiate a Pacific economic and political dominance that would grow throughout the region. This structure remained until 1979, at the onset of the revolution, though it was highly contested by indigenous communities dominating the region (Hale, 1987; CIDCA, 1987). It is at this point Mayangna claim they first began to hear of “government,” and many report having wanted to know who she was. The Sandinista Revolution against the Somoza dictatorship began with the overthrow of the regime as the first step in a wider and deeper process of liberation, reform, and emancipation. Because of their long histories of oppression and outside domination, the indigenous groups approved of the Sandinista project. As time passed, this changed. They demanded an ethnic-based representation of the coastal peoples in the central government and claimed 30% of the territory of Nicaragua was part of the indigenous nation and insisted their territorial rights to these lands be upheld. The Mayangna land claims however, were denied by the Sandinista controlled Nicaraguan State, and as a result, there was a rejection of the FSLN (Sandinista) by many on the coast. Some communities resorted to burning large forested areas to prevent state timber harvesting (Hale, 1994; CIDCA 1987; Jenkins, 1986). This denunciation of Sandinista leadership, though not representative of all communities, was used by the United States C.I.A. to establish a Contra movement and militia that began an externally driven war against the Sandinista governance (CIDCA-UCA, 1987). The Sandinista-Contra War, initiated in the Atlantic Coast regions, indigenous regions of  Nicaragua, led the Sandinista government to sign the only peace accord of the war, the1987 Indigenous Autonomy Law. During the Sandinista-Contra War, indigenous autonomy regions became high combat zones, and “the front line” between the Sandinista and indigenous army, and the Miskitu and Mayangna contras plus the U.S. military forces. Men and children over age 12 in the indigenous communities were pressed into combat by the dominant military group in
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